We are all going to die. That thought could be construed as morbid, but, fortunately, death is not the end. Soon after our eyes close on this world, they will open again, and we will see Jesus. For death is not the conclusion of our existence, but our first face to face encounter with Jesus.
What’s your plan? What are you going to say? What are going to do? Your whole life is preparation for this one moment.
I used to ask my students where they saw themselves in five years. I had to stop. After the first student responded that he didn’t know, the rest followed suit. Young people don’t have a five-year plan. They probably don’t know what they’ll be doing next week.
As we get older, we think more about the future. We make plans for our children. We make plans for our retirement. We even make plans for our death, determining our funeral arrangements, burial plots and the like. But, do we plan for the moment we meet Jesus?
Like the young 18-year-olds whose lack of foresight might amaze us, we forget to plan for the most significant moment of our existence, meeting God and being held accountable for every action of our life.
For several weeks I was exploring the existence of a Catholic mindset (theory and imitation of Christ), and fundamental to a Catholic worldview is an eternal perspective. Within an eternal perspective, one of the key elements is an awareness of the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. For Catholics, death is not a far-off reality, but something that you prepare for every day. For after death, we believe all humans are judged for their actions on earth, and based on that judgement, individuals will be sent to heaven or to hell.
A Catholic worldview also has a nuanced view of heaven and hell. Heaven is often incorrectly depicted in a materialistic sense, as a paradise with great mansions and endless feasting on great food and drinks, which nearly every person enters at the end of their life. The Catholic tradition, however, holds the enjoyment of heaven to be the beatific vision, seeing God, and that the way to heaven is a narrow and difficult path.
Conversely, many people think that hell is empty, save a few of the greatest sinners, or that it is a mythical place used to scare immature minds into behaving in a moral fashion. Catholics have an awareness of hell as a real place, and believe that when someone who is outside the state of grace dies and is unrepentant, the person will suffer the punishment of hell. The greatest suffering of hell is not a physical fire as it is often depicted, but a complete absence of God, making it devoid of love, goodness and beauty.
A Catholic with an eternal perspective views this world as insignificant when compared to the next world. The most glaring distinction is the profound difference in time spent in this world versus the next. The average life expectancy for an American is around 78 years, while eternity has no end. There is no comparison between 78 years and infinity. A million years, or even a billion years, is but a flash compared to eternity.
We would all endure a minute of suffering, say a painful shot or extreme temperature, for a million dollars, but that example represents such a poor payout compared to what God offers us. Who would not spend a lifetime doing what God asks, if eternity is on the line? Are not seventy-eight years of sacrifice worth an eternity of unimaginable happiness?
The goodness of this world is similarly incomparable to the next world. The moments of wordy bliss are just a small reflection of God and the goodness manifest in heaven. Tasting delicious food, taking in a beautiful view, or having a pleasant conversation—these moments of enjoyment and every other one here on earth are so slight when compared to wonders of heaven. As we read in scripture, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” With this perspective in mind, it only makes sense to forgo material goods of this world in order to focus more intensely on an eternity of happiness with God.
Our most important task is to save our soul. It is the only thing that matters in our life. If we do not save our soul, our entire life is a waste. Conversely, if we save our soul, our life is a success, no matter how numerous our earthly failings.
Our whole life should fit within the context of this one goal, saving our soul and being with God in the next life. Our life is a series of goals—finishing school, getting a job, entering into marriage, starting a family, and so on. These temporal goals, however, are all secondary to and should lead to the primary goal of getting to heaven. For instance, marriage is a significant aspiration for many single Catholics, but it is not a final end. The primary task for married individuals is to help their spouse get to heaven. When we set goals for later in life, we should always ask how they get us closer to heaven.
Catholics also see the Church as the means of salvation. That is, the Second Vatican Council confirmed that “the Church…is necessary for salvation… Hence, they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (LG 14) Through baptism, original sin is washed away, and we become members of the Church, providing an essential step on our path to salvation. Subsequently, the Church needs to focus on salvation as its essential function. The Church’s primary mission is not to build community, to entertain, or even to promote social justice. Secular entities, like NGOs and the entertainment industry, can be more proficient at these tasks than the Church. Salvation is the one thing that only the Catholic Church can offer to its members, which no other organization can offer, and it is the best thing imaginable. Why isn’t salvation a larger part of the contemporary Catholic message?
Rebuilding a Catholic mindset requires emphasizing an eternal perspective, which can be accomplished through three courses of action. Catholics should 1) meditate on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell 2) compare the insignificance of this world to the next 3) underscore the importance of saving their souls.
Catholics with an eternal perspective do not fear death, for they know it is not the end. When death comes, they are prepared, with a joyful anticipation, to meet God.